Once upon a time if you fell out with someone, there was no simple mechanism for expressing this to your wider community. No symbolic divorcing was available, and either you avoided them in person, or you couldn’t and life went on. The word ‘unfriend’ did not exist, nor did the concept. I am fascinated by the way facebook has changed things for those of us who frequent it – and those other social media sites as well.
There have been seven people in my life who were known to me personally and whom it became, at various times over the last five years or so, necessary to unfriend. We’ll leave aside the spammers and the random internet connections that didn’t work because those would never have existed pre-internet anyway. Seven people I just didn’t want to interact with any more. There were reasons, some more serious than others, but it boils down to a quality of life thing and not wanting to be messed about or made needlessly miserable. In many ways the whys are irrelevant, and also too personal to share. The mechanics of it are the more interesting bit, along with the emotional impact.
Unfriending is in many ways a ritual and symbolic action of rejection. If we have friends in common and do not go so far as to block, there will remain a degree of mutual visibility. Even a blocked person in touch with mutual friends does not disappear entirely, sometimes. So the tools of the internet do not deliver total separation and freedom from the person who was driving you nuts, if they are part of your wider network.
Phrases like ‘you’re not my friend any more’ have echoes of the school playground to them. The youthful ease of acquiring and rejecting people perhaps has online parallels. Perhaps the ‘adult’ version is to be more tactful, less honest, more passive-aggressive in our dealings with people who are physically present but no longer liked or valued. Perhaps there was more honesty, integrity and utility in the childhood drawing of lines, the willingness to be affronted and the aptitude for walking away. Perhaps being socialised into tolerating what drives us mad, accepting what wounds us and putting up with those we find offensive is not as wise and mature as it’s presented.
I’ve tried it both ways, online and offline, and I am increasingly a fan of deliberate, considered unfriending where appropriate. The world is a big place and there are more people in the small town I inhabit than I could ever meaningfully interact with. Why not walk away when people do things I am really uncomfortable with, hurt by or unhappy about? We are not such a small tribe that we must of necessity work together.
The counter arguments are many. The challenge is supposedly good for me, they’re doing me a favour really. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion this is for me to decide and not for anyone else to tell me. I’ve run into the ‘this is a good person so you shouldn’t be hurt by what they do’ line a few times. That’s bullshit. If it’s necessary to defend someone as ‘a good person’ I think there’s very good odds they’re a lousy person who makes a lot of noise about how good they are. I get plenty of helpful, meaningful, growth-inducing challenges from people who do not make me miserable, so I’ll be sticking with those. I’m very suspicious now of anyone who thinks I’m so crap as to need taking apart and knocking down, but who still wants to be around me. That’s a combination I now run away from as soon as I spot it.
The other argument is that maybe these people need me in their tribe, to challenge and help them. I’ve had it suggested to me, and I’ve given it some thought. I just don’t have enough of a Jesus complex to hang around martyring myself for people who don’t seem to like me much, or value me, or have any actual use for me. There are plenty of other people, why expend all my energy on the high-maintenance few who don’t even like what I do? That’s just silly.
The ritual of unfriending has a lot of symbolic and magical power. It is a strong statement, not to be used lightly and better not deployed in haste or in anger. But sometimes, drawing a line and saying ‘enough, thank you,’ is a powerful and liberating thing to do. Now, onto the good things with the lovely people…